Chancellor’s Remarks – New Student Convocation, August 25th, 2014

It is my great pleasure to welcome you to the University of California, Berkeley.  You have made a wise and wonderful choice, and we look forward to the journey that those of you starting today as freshmen will complete as the class of 2018, while those of you who are transfer students take your place as members of the class of 2016.

For all of you, this is surely an exciting, if complicated and emotional moment.  A long drama is about to come to closure: finishing high school or completing an Associate’s Degree, applying to colleges, getting the magic letter from UC Berkeley, deciding to come here and join us, and then, finally, packing up and transporting your life in boxes to a new place, surrounded by new people, ready to embark on an intellectual adventure unlike anything you have known before.

As a result, you have no doubt experienced excitement as well as worries about transitioning to a new place and preparing for new challenges…but you are not alone. As I walked among the residential halls and watched the beautifully controlled chaos of move-in this weekend, I could see new connections being made among you….and with this amazing campus community you have now joined.  I have seen emotional farewells turn to eager anticipation at the sight of new roommates, colleagues, friends, and – judging from stories of many alumni – possibly future husbands and wives as well. I have seen newly arrived freshmen from every walk of life and every corner of the world begin to take on board a new element of their identity; one that you will carry for the rest of your lives: you are now students and future alumni of the University of California, Berkeley

Even though I have been immersed in the seasonal rhythms of higher education for a long time, I still find this time of year thrilling, filled, as it is, with extraordinary excitement, a plenitude of potential and promise. And, as someone who arrived at Berkeley little more than a year ago, I remember well what it was like to pack-up, say goodbye to the old life, greet my new one with high hopes and great expectations….and then, on my first day, just like you, dive into the deep waters of this campus to a soundtrack provided by the fabulous Cal Band. It was a warm and wonderful welcome, just like the one I hope and expect you are receiving as well.

Although I never tire of talking about the excellence and numerous virtues of Berkeley’s setting, educational offerings, faculty, world-class research and public service, I’m sure that those attributes—the ones that make Berkeley one of the world’s greatest universities—are well known to you. I also trust that you share my deep appreciation for and commitment to our public mission and the extraordinary diversity of this campus that draws its students from the full and majestic tapestry of the peoples of California, while also opening its doors to the nation and the world.  We promote and support diversity—in background, identity, orientation, intellectual interests and perspective—because it supports our educational excellence; because it reflects the realities of the world we seek to prepare you for; and because it brings a special vitality to our campus community. And that is what I want to focus on today—community—not only its importance, but also the ideals, values and principles that form the foundation of our own, unique campus community, and the responsibilities we all share to sustain and improve it.

Each and every one of you are here today not just because of your stellar grades, test scores, personal achievements and extracurricular activities.  Our annual admissions process is not just a numbers game. We try to discern the intangible qualities of every student and do more than simply gather enough talented individuals to fill the seats of our incoming class. What we seek to build is a community of committed learners, thinkers, doers and believers who, for all their diversity, are bound together by a common connection to all that this great university represents, through a deep desire not just to take full advantage of the extraordinary resources of the university but to make a substantial contribution as well, both to the university community and to the world itself.

A strong, supportive and welcoming community is what makes it possible to take risks; it is our safety net as we explore new ideas, engage with new people and perspectives, and seek to translate our beliefs and commitments into tangible form.

The foundation of our great university is a respect for the power of knowledge, a conviction that spawned a widespread acceptance of the principle of academic freedom.  Academic freedom is a cherished belief that protects the work of intellectual inquiry, the pursuit of truth, and the relentless critical scrutiny of the things we take for granted.  Academic freedom is in some ways an extension of our unique constitutional commitments to freedom of speech, though in a form adapted to the complex responsibilities of academic life.  This adaptation has itself not been without dissent, disputation, and even conflict.  This Berkeley campus has in fact been the site for some of the most formative arguments in this domain, from the divisive controversy over the loyalty oath of 1949 to the canonic free speech movement of 1964.  Indeed, this fall we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the free speech movement, and as we do so, we celebrate the role of Berkeley in its sustained and serious historical engagement with some of the most pressing issues of our time.  We also, however, must use this commemorative moment to reflect about the complicated legacies of our past, to remember that our commitment to the constitutional protections of free speech, and our own history of extending the boundaries of academic freedom, carries with it enormous responsibility.  We profess our belief in the unimpeded, reasoned and civil exchange of a full spectrum of viewpoints on every issue, but we must acknowledge how difficult this conviction is in practice.  Even as we honor and learn from the strife that took place on this campus fifty years ago, we know we still confront challenging questions demanding collective answers about how we incorporate the movement’s lessons and ethos into the contemporaneous context.  For free speech to have meaning, it must not just be tolerated, it must also be heard, listened to, engaged and debated.  Yet this is easier said than done, for the boundaries between protected and unprotected speech, between free speech and political advocacy, between the campus and the classroom, between debate and demagoguery, between freedom and responsibility, have never been fully settled.  As a consequence, when issues are inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings, the commitment to free speech and expression can lead to division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation. This fall, like every fall, there will be no shortage of issues to animate and engage us all.  Our capacity to maintain that delicate balance between communal interests and free expression, between openness of thought and the requirements and disciplines of academic knowledge, will be tested anew.  And as befits Berkeley, the stakes will be as high as ever.  All that Berkeley stands for and represents rests on our ability to support the genuinely free exchange of ideas, information and perspective in a respectful environment where, as Clark Kerr, Berkeley’s first Chancellor, noted, we do not make ideas safe for students, but rather seek to make students safe for ideas.  The most effective, and appropriate, way to do this is through the careful attention to and maintenance of our unique—and uniquely engaged—academic community.

The power and importance of community finds meaningful expression in something we call “Bear Pact”, a new and innovative program in which all of you, as new Berkeley students, will participate.   While this campus offers a myriad of programs and resources to support students facing personal challenges, we also have a collective responsibility to look out for each other. Beyond informing students about important issues like mental health and alcohol abuse, “Bear Pact” seeks to elicit a commitment from each and every one of us to come together and help address these challenges. Even when it comes to one of the most serious issues campuses across the country are confronting—sexual violence—the university’s best efforts will be for naught without broad, communal participation—the acceptance of a collective responsibility to confront this challenge.  If we are to be a real community, we need to have the requisite resolve to take on some of the most troubling features of campus life and find genuine and lasting solutions that we all have a stake in preserving.

As we continue to build our Berkeley community, we acknowledge the fact that we cannot only celebrate the pre-eminence of our academic mission in this city of intellect, as Clark Kerr put it so powerfully.  Yes, our university is in large measure defined by the steady proliferation of parking spots for our faculty Nobel Laureates, our astronomical academic rankings, our common commitment to the important role played by our relentless pursuit for new and big ideas.  We need also, however, to acknowledge that our community is forged as well through the other accomplishments of our individual members, in domains as various as community service to our myriad community clubs, from the arts to athletics.  We welcome all of our extraordinary talented individuals, who will make amazing contributions to our university both in the classroom, library, or laboratory, and in their extracurricular work, whether in string quartets or basketball quintets, in theatrical performances or in memorial stadium on football Saturdays.

In an era of globalization we are all more cognizant than ever about our place in the world community and for that reason education today is as much about the cultivation of a global citizen as it is about the advancement of specialized and disciplined knowledge.  As we welcome 1,180 international students this fall either as freshmen or transfers, we look forward to the full integration of all of our new students into Berkeley’s community of scholars and citizens.  As you choose your majors from among a vast array of departmental programs, we encourage you also to take part in offerings outside your major and broaden your outlook on the many challenges and vexing questions associated with our new age of technology and globalization.  We hope that in your time here, you will engage in deep debates over and explorations into meaning, value and life’s fundamental purposes, not only for your personal development but also to better understand the world around you and to connect your academic pursuits with a desire to make the world a better place.  As we do that, we inhabit together a university community that must imagine new futures for itself, inventing new ways to embody Berkeley’s excellence and the values of a public university while adjusting to the changing demands and challenges of our times.

You will soon learn about different programs we have established here to help you take full advantage of the academic community you have joined.  One such initiative is called Berkeley Connect, and is aimed at creating an even more connected intellectual community for our undergraduate students.  We intend for this and similar programs to grow and expand during your time here so that all of you will have the opportunity to connect more vitally to the faculty, to graduate students from the departments where you choose to major, to each other, and to the most demanding questions of your academic study.

Ever since Plato first perceived that the inquiry into the nature of the good life of the individual was dependent on the examination as well of the nature of a good community, philosophical inquiry has accepted that individuals can best realize their own talents and aspirations in a social setting that accepts difference while creating communitarian forms that contain strife and organize disorder.  The history of political philosophy may not provide as many clear models for political communities that work well for both individual life and the public good as we might like, but there is an enduring strain of thought that conjures the university as the closest example we have of a utopian community.  Flawed though it might be, the university is not only guided by utopian ideas and goals but by a multitude of practices that succeed in realizing extraordinary ways to balance the needs of the individual and our society.  We welcome you as members of this continuing utopian experiment, and believe that at Berkeley we have taken this experiment seriously, using it to guide and to frame our fundamental mission.

This mission is threefold: teaching, research and public service. The air here is full of dreams and ambitions to confront some of the world’s great dilemmas and challenges. We challenge the status quo and conventional wisdom in order to reimagine the future…not just for ourselves, but for all. This attitude—this ambition—flows directly from the circumstances of our establishment as a public university in 1868, in what was part of a monumental American experiment based on the belief that the national community collectively benefits from broad access to an excellent higher education; that democracy thrives when citizens have the intellectual tools—and will—necessary to fully engage with the issues of the day; that society is more just and morally sound when the possibility of socioeconomic mobility is afforded to all based on merit, and not their origins or family circumstances.

And if who we are and all that we do as a university is to continue as a dynamic refutation of claims that higher education is strictly a private good, we must embody and model that communitarian spirit in the everyday life of this campus. If the public benefits of a college education are no longer a self-evident truth, we have a compelling responsibility to substantiate our conviction that they should be once again. We must make the case both through the conduct and performance of our university, through the arguments we make and, perhaps most importantly, through the ways that we engage and connect with each other as lifetime members of this grand Berkeley community.

Please, take your time here and use it well.  Immerse yourselves fully in the experiences and opportunities of Berkeley, including our magnificent campus and our wonderful collections—our libraries, museums, art, music, theater and botanical gardens.  Reach out. Engage. Connect.

Again, congratulations for being part of the Berkeley Community; and my profound wishes that your time here is as important, productive, and transformational as it has been for generations before you.  Fiat Lux—Let there be Light.  And, of course, Go Bears!